Lately I have been thinking of lists. It is the tendency of the the ambitious and the put-upon to create lists of things of what is to be done, what can be put off, what must do immediately. Lists for shopping, for cleaning, for tasks at hand. Fix the ceiling, buy electric bulbs, call the vet. Essayists like Sei Shonagon and Montaigne used lists as well, as ways to order thoughts under a heading. Montaigne wrote under headings of friendship, sleep, friendship, books to attempt to organize his thoughts on a variety of subjects. Sei Shonagon in 990 Japan did the same in her Pillow Book, and her titles are captivating: Hateful things, Adorable Things, Things When I Make Myself Imagine. Using lists of subjects is a good way to create a writing practice. Each day, you can begin an exercise starting with the sentence, “Today, I see…” and record what you see. If it is the same view, what you will see will change with the season, and your mood. One day, you notice the sky, one day the trees. Soon, you will have 365 Observations.
I was struck by an offhand comment I overheard the other day. Well, said the speaker, I’d love to sit at home all day and write, but I have to go to work. And it seemed that this is a key bit of misunderstanding in how a society sees writers. Unlike artists, writers hardly ever have much to show for our process. There is not a stack of canvases to display, or sounds and smells emitting from a studio of cans of paint and brushstrokes. In the old days, the clatter of keys was the sound of a writer writing, or the scratch scratch of pen on paper, but one doesn’t usually display drafts of underlined manuscript, nubs of pencils. In fact, very few of us sit up all night feverishly writing a novel, with a break to eat an apple, swadled in crazily patterned yet terribly chic knitted things, the way Jo did in the recent film of Little Women. Usually, a writer wakes, attends to the task at hand, and emerges a bit sleepy and disheveled to check the mail. One doesn’t make chitchat because the conversations are arranging themselves inside. So I imagine what a person who might write at home looks like is a person not working at all.
Of course, writing is work, and not often pleasurable. It’s work. Creating is fun, but weighing each word and aligning it with another, revising a paragraph, and re-typing an entire chapter only to throw it away, is most definately not fun. But then come those moments, when the world around you seems to fall away, and something clicks, and feels write, I mean right and all is impossibly good.
Not to say there aren’t The Distractions working at home. There is the time spent on social media until one flinches back and shuts it down. There is the time spent reading the news, doing laundry, sweeping the floor. There might be the nap following reading whatever book one is buried in at the moment. I start in the morning, and stop after four hours. I make my favorite lunch ( grilled cheese) and attend to correspondence. And at dinner time, if I am really into my work, I watch the blandest tv possible with dinner, and head to bed. Months or years later, a book emerges. So while it may not look like work, it is. And that work accompanies you to every market trip, every Cafè stop, every dinner party. There is a need for tremendous head-space to create anything, and there is a certain disconnect from the world of 9-5. The work is invisible, but it’s going on, all the time.